On Consciousness and the Brain

This is my textual response to Steve Ramirez’s post:

Steve,

First, thanks for taking the time to rebut, in writing, some of my statements concerning consciousness on YouYube. As a thinker, I can hardly think of a more helpful gift than a detailed counter-posturing in response to my ideas. I think consciousness is involved in an evolutionary adventure, and by entering into such philosophical discussions with one another perhaps we can participate in its next few steps.

When it comes to consciousness, I am neither mysterian (like Colin McGinn and perhaps Penrose), nor a dualist (like Chalmers). Since you mentioned him, I would align myself with someone like William James, whose broadly phenomenological approach to consciousness is an important reminder to scientists that we are here dealing with the study of our own being and knowing, not with another abstract scientific object easily separable from ourselves as subjects. James developed a breed of monism, where concepts like mind and matter were both derived from a unified substratum of “pure experience.” Whether a particular natural event is understood to be material or mental depends upon its relations to other events, not on something intrinsic to its own substance.

I don’t want to get too much further into James’ ideas, but suffice it to say that our disagreement, Steve, is the result not of a misunderstanding on the level of evident facts (with all due respect, though I’m not a doctoral student in neuroscience, I’m not uninformed about the field), but on the much more foundational level of metaphysics. We each begin thinking about these issues out of radically different imaginary backgrounds. It seems that you begin by taking for granted that the “real world” of matter, energy, space and time is entirely mind-independent, and that mind somehow bubbles up out of inert matter when that matter unintentionally falls (via natural selection) into certain patterns of activity. I, on the other hand, cannot make intelligible sense out of such a picture, and so I begin with different assumptions (like those of James), that reality is not made of mind or matter; reality is a relational process whose features (psychical and physical) are continually brought forth out of a primordial, non-substantial creative ground.

Steve, in response to my claim that neuroscience has only shown a correlation between some conscious states and some brain states, you write:

“If we can explain how, when, and why neurons fire in particular patterns, interact with various other brain regions, and finally produce a particular behavior, then we have described all there is to describe. Calling this a ‘correlation’ is a deep misunderstanding of the term, and it’s what happens when a rookie throws his hardest 35mph intellectual fastball at the hard-hitting Babe Ruths of science.”

What is the neuroscientist trying to explain, consciousness or behavior? They are not the same thing. A car engine can behave functionally or it can break down. In neither case is the engine conscious. The only way complete knowledge of neural functioning could count as complete knowledge of consciousness is if the researcher assumed from the beginning that mental phenomena are an illusion or epiphenomenon. A more scientific position would be to withhold such assumptions until further study had been completed. In my estimation, neuroscience is about where physics was in the 18th century. The studies you linked to are impressive, but NONE of them offer even the beginnings of a theory to account for how neurochemical activity becomes or is identical to consciousness. Simply stating that consciousness is in the brain, even if you are wearing a white lab coat, is not the same as accounting for how this is so.

In the case of Crick and Koch’s research, I think their findings tell us more about visual perception than consciousness. It does appear that our visual experience is topographically correlated with activity in the occipital cortex. But as to how this neural activity is related to experience, their theory tells us nothing. And although you tried to argue that natural selection allows neural reductionism to avoid solipsism, aren’t research programs like Crick and Koch’s suggesting that the rich, colorful environment I see is actually the neural activity in the back of my skull? This sort of approach calls into question the whole enterprise of scientific objectivity and seems to me to represent a glaring inconsistency in the materialistic worldview. If our experience is caused by brain activity, we know nothing about the material world but what our contingent physiology allows us to. Nothing in the principles of natural selection suggest that true perception of mind-independent reality is necessary for survival and reproduction. The sort of reductionistic picture you’ve painted in this post suggests that all of our experience as conscious, willful human beings is delusory, or at best virtual. Not only would this undermine ethical responsibility and make a mockery of our justice system, but it calls the epistemic basis of scientific inquiry itself into question. If consciousness is just a product of the brain, and the brain is just a product of natural selection, then scientific knowledge is merely a likely story shaped by the contingency of our organs of perception.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather science rest upon more secure foundations. I’m worried that in the rush to crown itself the queen of human knowledge, natural science is in fact undermining its own validity.

One Reply to “On Consciousness and the Brain”

  1. Oh my gosh, will you western-educated neuro”scientists” PLEASE spend some time hanging out with yogis and gurus in their environment …. It is getting embarrassing how just plain dumb your basic assumptions are …

    Look, I know that won’t help with tenure or research bucks, but the upside is you can speed up your research by DECADES!

    Thanks. Enjoy. Gregory Lent

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